What the philosopher Marcus Aurelius believed about masculinity
What the philosopher Marcus Aurelius believed about masculinity
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Just be one!
— Meditations, 10.16
Over the past few decades, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Stoicism. People often confuse stoicism (lower-case), a coping style that involves suppressing or concealing emotions, also called having a “stiff upper-lip,” with Stoicism (capitalized), the ancient Graeco-Roman school of philosophy. Some crudely equate “manliness” with being tough and unemotional (lower-case “stoicism”). I think there’s a more nuanced way to understand how Stoic philosophy might inform a modern man’s conception of his role in society.
The most famous ancient Stoic is Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor of Rome during the height of its power. (I wrote about his use of Stoicism in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.) Marcus was the closest thing the world has ever witnessed to Plato’s ancient ideal of the philosopher-king. Indeed, we’re told that he frequently quoted Plato: “that those states prospered where the philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers.”
He did have enemies, though. In 175 AD, toward the end of his reign, Marcus faced a civil war when the governor-general of the eastern provinces, Avidius Cassius, had himself acclaimed as a rival emperor by the Egyptian legion. Cassius was a cruel general, known to torture his prisoners of war and deserters alike. He criticized Marcus for being a weak and unmanly ruler, calling him “a philosophical old woman.” After only three months, however, Marcus won the civil war when Cassius’ own officers ambushed and beheaded him. No statues of Cassius survive today and his name is all but forgotten. It would seem that Cassius’s brutal brand of masculinity was not in fact a more efficient leadership style than Marcus’ philosopher-king approach.
Marcus actually tackles the question of masculinity head-on in his personal notes on Stoic philosophy as a way of life, known today as Meditations. Here’s what we can learn from the ancient text.
Manliness and fatherhood
My impression is that Marcus inherited certain old-fashioned Roman values from his immediate family, particularly his mother, Domitia Lucilla. Despite being an immensely wealthy and highly educated Roman noblewoman, she preferred a simple way of life “far removed from that of the rich” (Meditations, 1.3). She seems to have been good friends with Junius Rusticus, who became Marcus’ main Stoic tutor. I sometimes wonder whether it could have been Marcus’ mother who first introduced him to the study of Stoic philosophy, which came to shape his concept of what it means to be a man.
Tragically, his father died when Marcus was a child, perhaps as young as three years old. We don’t know the circumstances. Marcus only knew him through early childhood memories and what he learned from family and friends about his father’s reputation, which he sums up in just two words: “modesty and manliness” (Meditations, 1.2). Other Roman nobles would have regarded “modesty” as evidence of weakness. Marcus, on the contrary, saw the modesty for which his father was known as a sign of his manliness and strength of character.
For Marcus, the ability to show kindness and compassion toward others, rather than wallowing in anger, was one of the most important signs of true inner strength and manhood.
Although he lost his father before he even had a chance to know him, Marcus was fortunate to be adopted as a teen by a Roman noble destined to become the emperor known as Antoninus Pius. Marcus made Antoninus Pius his role model in life and decades after his adoptive father’s death Marcus would still describe himself as a “disciple of Antoninus.” Meditations lists in great detail the qualities Marcus most admired in his adoptive father and sought to emulate. The first thing he mentions is that Antoninus was “gentle.” He was “never harsh, or implacable, or overbearing,” and never worked himself up into a lather over anything (Meditations, 1.16). For Marcus, the ability to show kindness and compassion toward others, rather than wallowing in anger, was one of the most important signs of true inner strength and manhood.
Manliness and mastering anger
In Meditations, Marcus goes into detail about Stoic strategies for mastering our feelings of anger. He concludes by saying something remarkably ahead of its time:
And when you do become angry, be ready to apply this thought, that to fly into a passion is not a sign of manliness, but rather, to be kind and gentle. For insofar as these qualities are more human, they are also more manly. It is the man who possesses such virtues who has strength, nerve, and fortitude, and not one who is ill-humoured and discontented. Indeed, the nearer a man comes in his mind to freedom from unhealthy passions [apatheia], the nearer he comes to strength. Just as grief is a mark of weakness, so is anger too, for those who yield to either have been wounded and have surrendered to the enemy. — Meditations, 11.18
Marcus, like other Stoics, didn’t believe that all feelings of anger and grief are signs of weakness. The Stoics accepted that there is a type of emotional reaction that’s inevitable in certain situations. Here, he’s talking about what they called the unhealthy passions, feelings such as fear or grief that someone indulges in and magnifies beyond the bounds set by nature. The wise man, by contrast, doesn’t add to this initial spark of anger or perpetuate it any further. To do so, according to Marcus, is a sign of true weakness. Although he seemed like a powerful figure, the cruel usurper Avidius Cassius was, in this sense, actually a very weak man. He lacked the strength of character and freedom from passionate grief and anger (apatheia) exhibited by Marcus’ birth father and role models such as his adoptive father, Antoninus.
To be more manly, you must first be more human
One of the pitfalls of defining manliness is the potential implication that women don’t possess the qualities you’re describing. The Stoics avoided that by insisting that the virtues are fundamentally the same in men and women. However, they manifest in superficially different ways in each of us, depending on our nature and circumstances. It would be more accurate to say that Marcus is describing prerequisites for manliness, required for humans to fulfill their nature properly — “insofar as these qualities are more human,” as he puts it, “they are also more manly.” Stoics believed that anyone, whether male or female, required this moral and practical wisdom in order to reach their potential in life.
Elsewhere, Marcus affirms his desire to live up to Antoninus’ example and become “one who is manly and mature, a statesman, a Roman, and a ruler” (Meditations, 3.5). To him this means being able to perform his duties, and even face death, in good cheer, without being dependent upon support from others. He sums it up in the maxim: “you must stand upright, not be held upright.” Marcus repeated this striking expression of self-reliance three or four times in Meditations. Finally, he condensed it into just three Greek words:
Ὀρθός, μὴ ὀρθούμενος
“Upright, not righted (by others)” (Meditations, 7.12). That’s the sort of man he admired and wanted to become. Someone with the strength of character to stand on his own two feet and, like his adoptive father Antoninus before him, to repay even anger with unshakeable wisdom, patience, and kindness.